Meet Emulsions: The Lightweight, Water-Based Moisturizers Acne-Prone Skin Will Love

Per dermatologists, it's one of the best ways to hydrate oily skin.

woman applying emulsion skincare

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If you’ve taken a chemistry class in your lifetime, you’ve likely heard the term “emulsion.” Defined by Azom as “two liquids that would not normally mix” that are “typically milky in appearance,” this term is also appropriately used to describe lightweight, water-based moisturizers. Long-celebrated in the K-beauty world, emulsions offer the hydration that comes with a cream or serum, but without the heavy, sometimes greasy feeling that might be associated with thicker, hydrating formulas. This can mean big things for anyone looking to hydrate their oily or acne-prone skin, sans the feeling of overloading their complexions with products. 

Ahead, dermatologist share exactly how to use emulsions in your skincare routine, the best formulas, and the skin types they're suited for.

What Are Emulsions?

Chemically speaking, an emulsion is considered to be a mixture of two liquid substances that wouldn’t blend naturally on their own.

“An emulsion is a mixture of products that are not dissolvable in one another. A classic example is oil and vinegar. [In skincare products], they tend to feel lighter than cream,” says Dr. David Bank, board-certified dermatologist at The Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic, and Laser Surgery. In order to retain their consistency, the ingredients that make up an emulsion need an emulsifier in order to help them stick together to form a new material. In terms of skincare, common emulsifiers include polysorbate 60, cetearyl alcohol, and glyceryl stearate (any of which can commonly be found listed as ingredients in an emulsion)

Most emulsions are formulated as oil suspended in water, which is generally more stable and has less chance of separating than one made of water suspended in oil. This water-based formula is a fantastic option for treating any skin type, as it’s not only incredibly hydrating, but won’t clog pores or leave skin feeling oily. Having a breathable complexion that’s not overly coated in products probably sounds appealing to most people, regardless of their skin type, but this can be especially attractive for anyone with already oily skin who still needs to hydrate. “Emulsions are lighter versions of moisturizing creams,” says Dr. Morgan Rabach, dermatologist at LM Medical. “Unlike most heavy facial creams, emulsions are typically water-based, which means they go on lighter and thinner than creams. In some cases, emulsions come in gel or almost liquid forms. I think of them as thicker than a serum but thinner than a cream.”

Meet the Expert

  • Dr. Morgan Rabach is a board-certified dermatologist at LM Medical in New York City. She is also a clinical instructor in the Dermatology department at Mount Sinai Hospital.
  • Dr. David Bank is a board-certified dermatologist at The Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic, and Laser Surgery in Mount Kisco, New York. He specializes in acne and rosacea, cosmetic dermatology, and dermatologic surgery.

Benefits of Using Emulsions

Overall, emulsions work to hydrate the skin, no matter what age you are or what your skin type is. “Emulsions offer a lighter delivery method to moisturize skin and often are non-comedogenic,” Dr. Rabach explains. This means it won’t clog your pores, which, when combined with excess sebum production, can lead to acne symptoms like pimples and blackheads. Additionally, emulsions sink into the surface of the skin quickly, allowing them to act fast and deliver what they promise. “Emulsions are readily absorbed into the skin and can be more concentrated than moisturizers,” Dr. Bank adds. “They can also reinforce the skin barrier and prevent moisture loss to make the skin healthier.”  

  • Hydrating
  • Non-comedogenic (won't clog pores)
  • Absorbs quickly
  • Reinforces the skin barrier
  • Can be formulated with Salicylic acid to treat acne or with Hyaluronic acid to treat dryness.

Like many skincare items, an emulsion can address your specific skin issues if you search for formulas designed to treat what you wish to heal. “There are different emulsions to target specific skin concerns. For example, acne-prone patients might choose an emulsion with Salicylic acid,” says Dr. Bank. For those with dryness to contend with, some emulsions are formulated with humectant ingredients like Hyaluronic acid, which binds with water molecules to hydrate the skin.

Do Emulsions Work For All Skin Types?

The short answer to this question is yes, an emulsion will work to treat and hydrate your skin, whatever your skin type. “Any skin type can use an emulsion,” Dr. Bank assures. One skin type that benefits particularly well from an emulsion is acne-prone skin. “The fact that emulsions are lighter, water-based, and more easily absorbed make them attractive to people with oily skin as a way to get the hydration your skin needs without the weight and sheen of a cream,” Dr. Rabach adds. “They are especially useful for patients that are acne prone. Emulsions are also my moisturizer of choice when is it hot and humid.” 

Emulsions Are Most Beneficial For:

  • Acne-prone skin
  • Oily skin
  • Dry skin
  • Mature Skin

Emulsions aren’t just reserved for those with oily complexions, however. People with dry, mature, or combination skin types can also experience an added boost of hydration with the help of an emulsion in addition to their moisturizer or night cream of choice, and because it’s so lightweight, it won’t feel too heavy when used with other products. “Dry skin can benefit as well from their hydrating properties, and a more intensive cream can be added on top for extra moisture. Because emulsions are so sheer, you can layer multiple products without having product build up,” Dr. Bank adds. “If you require extra hydration, you can apply an emulsion before applying a moisturizer.”  

How to Apply Emulsions

The key to getting the most out of your emulsion is applying it in the correct order. Generally, an emulsion should be used as one of the final steps in your skincare routine as a way to lock in any ingredients you’re feeding your skin to treat a certain issue. “An emulsion should be applied after the most active product. So, if you use an anti-oxidant serum first or a retinol first, then the emulsion can be applied on top to seal it all in. You can use the emulsion under a sunscreen in the morning,” says Dr. Rabach. If an emulsion is all you need to moisturize your skin, be sure to apply it as the final step in your skincare routine, and always follow it up with an SPF if you’re heading out for the day.

Dermatologist-Approved Emulsion Formulas

If you’re looking to add an emulsion to your skincare routine, there are many to choose from. Dr. Rabach recommends HA5 by Skinmedica, which she explains “... contains a proprietary mix of five types of Hyaluronic acid for immediate and long-term hydration.”

Dr. Bank also has a few favorites for addressing specific skincare concerns, which are available at lower price points. “I like Cetaphil Daily Hydrating Lotion with Hyaluronic Acid which is very lightweight, Glo Skin Beauty Oil Control Emulsion for oily-skinned patients, and Avene Tolerance Extreme Emulsion for those with sensitive skin.”

skin medica ha5 serum
SkinMedica HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator $178
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cetaphil face lotion
Cetaphil Daily Hydrating Lotion $13
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glo skin beauty emulsion skincare
Glo Skin Beauty Oil Control Emulsion $46
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avene emulsion skincare
Avène Tolérance Extrême Emulsion $38
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